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History of Abolitionism

The Abolitionist Movement in the United States


The abolition of chattel slavery in the United States was both profoundly overdue and, in its own way, fairly impressive. It took decades of activism to achieve, culminating in an election and a bloody civil war - and the abolition of chattel slavery was only one milestone in the long, continuing struggle against institutional racism - but the fact that it happened at all, considering the economic and political power of Southern slaveholders, is a testament to the hard, self-sacrificing work of American slaves and their allies.


In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson condemns British endorsement of the North American slave trade:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.
Jefferson's own status as an unrepentant slaveholder made this condemnation a little less persuasive than it might otherwise have been, and the influence of Southern states guaranteed that this paragraph never appeared in the final version of the Declaration.


Pursuant to Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress bans the importation of slaves - but the domestic slave trade continues unabated, and soon becomes central to the Southern agricultural economy.


William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing The Liberator, an influential abolitionist newspaper.


The American Anti-Slavery Society is founded.


A young former slave named Frederick Douglass publishes his memoirs, and quickly emerges as a leader in the national abolitionist movement.


Harriet Tubman, who had herself escaped from slavery only a year earlier, becomes a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad.


Sojourner Truth delivers her landmark "Ain't I a Woman?" speech at a feminist conference, introducing the first-wave feminist movement to the concept of intersectionality 150 years before there was a word for it.


Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is published.


John Fremont becomes the first presidential nominee of the brand new Republican Party, which was created primarily by abolitionists. He loses, but Abraham Lincoln will stun the nation by running as a Republican four years later - and winning the presidency.


In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation and places the North squarely on the right side of history.


The Thirteenth Amendment is ratified, ending chattel slavery in the United States forever. But Frederick Douglass, who is by this time a veteran in the abolitionist movement (but still has 30 years of activism ahead of him), issues a stern warning:
"Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the Legislatures of the South retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there. As Edmund Quincy once said, 'While the word 'white' is on the statute-book of Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State. While a black man can be turned out of a car in Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State. While a slave can be taken from old Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State' ... Now, while the black man can be denied a vote, while the Legislatures of the South can take from him the right to keep and bear arms, as they can - they wouuld not allow a Negro to walk with a cane where I came from, they would not allow five of them to assemble together - the work of the Abolitionists is not finished."
Douglass is correct, and a white supremacist state's rights movement soon emerges to counter attempts at federal civil rights legislation.


The American Anti-Slavery Society disbands.
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